Academic journal article Pakistan Journal of Women's Studies: Alam-e-Niswan

Assertive Wife, Cooperative Husband: Changing Household Power Structure and Returned Migrant Women in Sri Lanka

Academic journal article Pakistan Journal of Women's Studies: Alam-e-Niswan

Assertive Wife, Cooperative Husband: Changing Household Power Structure and Returned Migrant Women in Sri Lanka

Article excerpt


Women are an important component of the transnational migrant workforce. Unlike the past, today more and more women are migrating as independent migrants, unaccompanied by men. The global transnational migrant workforce today makes up approximately forty nine percent of the total migrant workforce (Piper and French, 2011). In recent years, high demand has surged through the countries of the Middle East and Singapore and South Korea in East and Southeast Asia for women domestic workers. Sri Lanka is one of the many Asian countries that have benefited from this new opportunity (Gulati, 1993) for contract migrant workers, especially for domestic work.

Migration gives women the opportunity to make their own strategic life choices in contexts where such opportunities were previously denied to them (Kabeer, 1999). Thus, migration can be seen as a factor that empowers women migrants and changes their gender power relations by expanding their opportunities and choices. Migration, indeed, as Hugo (2000) rightfully points out, can both be a cause and a consequence of female empowerment. It is because of this acquired trait that Nicola Piper and Amber French define migrant women as 'dynamic individuals who change over time and space, and whose presence changes places in multi-directional ways' (2011, p.1). However, with all these changes, adjustment of status and roles (duties and responsibilities) of members of the household are unavoidable, especially when migrant women become providers for the family. Sri Lanka's gender order at the household level gives men priority in making major economic and social decisions. Migrant women bring several changes into this male-headed household that challenge this ideology and transform the power structure in the family in a different direction. Focusing on these developments, this study examines the changing power structure in post-migration households of migrant women in Sri Lanka in relation to changes of tasks, responsibilities, decision-making role, and gender relations.

The changing power structure of post-migration households cannot be understood in isolation since it is an outcome of the whole migration process. This paper, therefore, briefly addresses power relations both in the pre-migration household as well as in the during-migration household. The study reveals that the covert power of women, a characteristics of the pre-migration household, changes to overt power or controlling power in the during-migration household, and remains so in the post- migration household, even though in many cases, the woman ceases to be the family provider. . This qualitative change in the returned migrant woman is due to the newly acquired position of provider she played in the past and the sense of self worth that it gave her. The overall result of these changes is the emergence of an active wife who plays an increasingly important role in the public space and a cooperative husband (Pinnawala, 2009) who accepts that the private space of the household is also his responsibility.

Migrant Women in Sri Lanka: An overview

Overseas migration of labour is not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even as early as the nineteenth century there was an outflow of workers, though on a very small scale. However in the 1970s, with the economic boom in the West Asian region accompanied by the oil price increase, Sri Lanka became a major labour exporting country of the South Asian region. Unlike the previous migratory movements, a majority of contemporary migrants are contract labours, which is migration of individuals for a specific period. Contract-worker migration began as an outflow of male workers responding to new employment opportunities in the construction industry and infrastructure development in West Asia. The domination of women-workers came later in the 1990s. In this period, seventy-five per cent of Sri Lanka's migrant labour force was comprised of women. …

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